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Welfare Reform Bills Coming Right and Left

January 03, 1988|Charles R. Morris | Charles R. Morris, author of "The Cost of Good Intentions," an analysis of New York City's fiscal crisis, is a Wall Street consultant.

NEW YORK — Portents for the last year of the Reagan Administration are almost unrelievedly bleak. With the political season in full swing, with the White House and Congress at loggerheads on such basic issues as the budget deficit, hopes for bipartisan legislative accomplishment appear minuscule.

There are two possible exceptions. One, of course, is arms control, although further progress will depend as much on Mikhail S. Gorbachev as on initiatives proposed by the U.S. Administration.

The second, perhaps surprisingly, is welfare reform. For the first time in more than 20 years, there is an emerging liberal-conservative consensus on broad outlines of welfare legislation. A sweeping reform bill passed the House of Representatives just before the holiday break, sharply revising current rules on work and job training, child care and child support.

The House bill, with a price tag in the $4-billion to $5-billion range, is too expensive for the White House and the Republican leadership. But a thoughtful bill sponsored in the Senate by Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) is closer to Republican spending tastes. If Ronald Reagan can harness the dissipating remnants of his presidential prestige behind a consensus proposal, there is an opportunity to rack up one last substantial achievement.

The opportunity arises in large part because both liberals and conservatives are abandoning their opposing stereotypes of the welfare population, views that have dominated social-policy debates for the last 25 years.

The liberal stereotype, dating from the 1960s, was that welfare recipients were victims of forces beyond their control. Generous and non-obtrusive aid would allow recipients to maintain their dignity and social connections. Recipients themselves could be entrusted to leave the rolls when their circumstances permitted.

The collapse of the traditional family structure, particularly among blacks, and the dispiriting increase in dependency among the working-age population swept away the hopes of liberal reformers. Caseloads jumped more than sevenfold in the 1960s. By 1985, about 60% of all births to black women were out of wedlock--and 90% of births to black teen-agers. Half of black teen-age mothers go on welfare.

The vast increase in female-headed families, more than any other factor, accounts for the persistence of poverty in the 1970s and 1980s. Fewer than one in 10 fathers of welfare children contribute anything to their support. While it is far too simplistic to argue that the availability of welfare has caused such pervasive and shameful irresponsibility, it it equally naive to pretend that it has not facilitated it.

But the conservative welfare stereotype of a semi-permanent subpopulation of shiftless television-watchers doesn't fit facts either. Over time, some 80% of welfare recipients are short-stay cases, on the rolls only to weather temporary crises, like a separation or a loss of employment.

The 20% of welfare cases that stay on the rolls over the long term, of course, account for a disproportionate share of expenditures, but the majority of them are not black families living in urban ghettos. They are more likely to live in rural areas and be elderly or disabled.

Even the more hopeless welfare cases, black teen-age mothers who drop out of school to have their babies, show surprising long-term mobility. A recent 17-year follow-up of such mothers in Baltimore found that only 25% of them had become long-term recipients. Another quarter had been sporadically on and off the rolls. A quarter had worked consistently, although at marginal income levels, and a final quarter had achieved stable marriages with family incomes in excess of $25,000. The least successful cases, interestingly enough, married the teen-age fathers of their children.

The possibility of a liberal-conservative welfare consensus involves acceptance of two fundamental facts. The first is that welfare grant levels have been reduced dramatically in real terms since the early 1970s. In some states, particularly in the South, grant levels are shamefully low. In Mississippi, the maximum monthly benefit for a family of four was $120 in 1985. A national floor on benefits is clearly needed.

The second critical recognition is that welfare program administration must send "social signals" that reinforce the values and work ethic of the larger society, both for the sake of the recipients themselves and to ensure continued public support.

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